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By Pete Vonder Haar | February 24, 2005

I’ve never been a big fan of puns, fish-related or otherwise, so I’ll do my best to avoid any precious attempts to couch my dislike for DreamWorks Animation’s latest failed attempt to keep pace with Pixar by simply telling you that “Shark Tale” is a joyless, soulless, hyper-marketed piece of crap that exists solely for the purpose of moving Happy Meals. You’re unlikely to see a more blatant cinematic example of focus groupthink this year, and that’s saying something.

Animated films, even bad ones, will always have a place in the market because (let’s face it) most kids aren’t that discriminating. They’ll forgive a lot in a cartoon, so long as there are goofy voices, references to recognizable cultural touchstones, and the occasional fart joke. That being the case, children across this great land of ours will be happy to hear that “Shark Tale” contains all of the above, which – combined with some admittedly decent animation – will most likely be more than enough to allow Jeffrey Katzenberg to make his bank before “The Incredibles” comes along in November and lays waste to the box office. And it’s got Will Smith.

Ah yes, Will Smith. I officially take back anything complimentary I said about him for his performance in “I, Robot.” Smith plays Oscar, the little fish with big dreams, as a Ritalin-deprived version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Oscar is a walking (swimming) stereotype, spewing tired urban slang while trying to “keep it real.” It’s hard not to view him as a racial caricature, except that one assumes Smith supplied his voice out of is own free will and knew what he was doing.

Oscar “works” as a tongue scrubber at the whale wash, when he isn’t chatting up the Angie the receptionist (Renée Zellweger), but he longs for bigger things. Opportunity presents itself in the shape of Lenny (Jack Black), the vegetarian son of great white shark godfather Don Lino (Robert De Niro). When Lenny’s brother Frankie is accidentally killed while chasing Oscar, our hero unwisely takes credit for the kill and is dubbed “Sharkslayer” by his grateful fellows. Before you can say “Liberty Valance,” Oscar is living the high life and enjoying the attentions of Lola (Angelina Jolie), who is the fish equivalent of “hot” as compared to Angie’s “cute.”

Of course, all bills come due at some point, and with Don Lino swearing revenge on the so-called Sharkslayer, Oscar will eventually have to face the music. Luckily (this being a kids’ movie and all), one is reasonably assured it won’t take more than an hour and a half for Oscar and Lenny to put their so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme into effect.

“Shark Tale” has problems. Besides the unfortunate return of Will Smith to his sitcom shtick, the film’s few clever moments are buried in an avalanche of fish-related jokes so labored they make Kip Addotta’s “Wet Dream” look like Candide. It isn’t a musical, thank the gods, but even the existing soundtrack is far too scattershot to be effective, and this underlines one of the film’s key failings: lack of resonance. The great children’s films are those that create some sense of wonderment in their audience, to the extent that they want to revisit the world and watch the characters over and over again. Nothing about “Shark Tale,” a half-assed pastiche of mob clichés, context-free pop culture references, and assorted filler, suggests kids will be clamoring to see it again. They may not be discriminating, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re idiots, and they know “Finding Nemo” is most likely waiting at home for them.

Admittedly, DreamWorks has come a long way since “Antz” or even “Shrek,” and the animation is “Shark Tale” is their best to date. However, Katzenberg and company still haven’t figured out that was makes Pixar’s features so much better isn’t just the quality of the art but the way they manage to generate actual emotion without coming across as superficial or cloying. Until DreamWorks figures out the secret to that success, their animated films will continue to offer fleeting distractions, but no good lasting impressions. To the contrary, as I sat in theater watching “Shark Tale,” I (briefly) found myself envying those poor Third World kids living in countries without theaters, since they’ll probably never get the chance to see it.

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